SF cops keep telling homeless people to move

'Move along' orders continue in spite of health emergency

At 10:11 pm on March 17, five SFPD officers approached a man sitting on the sidewalk at Stockton and Union Streets, according to a video uploaded to Twitter taping the event. The officers’ words can’t be heard, but the man they approached said “That’s where I sleep…I’m gonna be sleeping here” after a few moments into the exchange. After another moment, the officers got back in their vehicles and the man sitting on the sidewalk collected his belongings, stood up, and walked away.

This is one example of the police issuing what homeless rights advocates have called “move along orders,” where despite the COVID-19 crisis, police continue to enforce laws that forbid unhoused people to sleep or sit in public areas, forcing homeless people to seek a place to spend the night elsewhere.

This practice is nothing new. SFPD and the Department of Public Works have been conducting homeless sweeps for years.

But the Centers for Disease Control has recommended against law enforcement conducting sweeps of homeless encampments, and Kelley Cutler, human rights organizer at the Coalition on Homelessness, agrees that sweeps, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, are a bad idea.

“What makes this so crazy is that we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” said Cutler. “Stopping sweeps helps with social distancing, also people aren’t being squeezed into small areas, avoid sleep deprivation.”

Cutler said that if homeless people can stay in the same area, it helps ensure that healthcare and outreach workers can locate people, collect trash, and set up and maintain sanitation stations.

Cutler said she has heard from both service providers and members of the community in the Tenderloin that there has been more enforcement by police since the mayor’s shelter-in-place order went into effect, and that it is evident to her as she walks through the neighborhood. She explained that with fewer people outside, homeless people they have become much more visible to police, and as a result many of the unhoused people who are normally in her neighborhood are no longer around.

I reached out to SFPD asking why officers are enforcing “move along” orders, and whether these interactions were occurring at an increasing rate, to which they replied:

“During this time with the current health order we are focused on advising the homeless population of resources available such as shelters and navigation centers where people can seek haven.  We work closely with our city partners to assist in addressing larger scale issues that may affect public health and may make vulnerable populations more at risk than other communities.”

They refused to comment on the specific interaction which occurred the night of March 17.

Cutler added that there seems to be ambiguity in the police telling homeless people to “move along.”

“They haven’t provided areas for people to shelter in place, if someone goes around the corner, will they be told to move along?” asked Cutler.

Christin Evans, a small business owner in the Haight and homeless rights activist, said agrees with Cutler’s opinion that there is a lack of clarity around police telling homeless people to relocate.

“I don’t think there’s a plan, there’s no clarity of where people should shelter in place. What the police are doing right now, is that they are still enforcing no sleeping in parks, and no sit-lie in the streets, so no sanctioned location for people to pitch a tent,” said Evans.

Evan’s also criticized the tactics used by police when talking to unhoused people, specifically their practice of “barking” over loudspeakers when telling people to relocate or stand six feet apart from others.

“I’ve had neighbors tell me it feels like a police state. All of these things combined, visibility of police and the sound [of the loudspeaker] is unsettling, we should be focused on seeing each other as neighbors,” said Evans.

Evans said that the police need to establish guidelines for homeless people to know where they can stay, as they are being told to move “frequently.” Evans added that these frequent “move-alongs” can be dangerous to both the communities where homeless people are living, as well as those who are unhoused themselves.

“It’s dangerous for the community. People who live on the streets have compromised health, live 20 years less than those who are housed. They are more likely to get respiratory infections or pneumonia,” said Evans. Respiratory infections and pneumonia are common fatal complications from COVID-19.

Evans and the Homeless Youth Alliance are working to collect donated two-person tents for distribution to homeless people who do not have immediate access to homeless shelters while the city works on acquiring hotel rooms to shelter homeless people exposed to COVID-19. Currently they have collected 30 tents.

Mary Howe, executive director of the Homeless Youth Alliance, said getting homeless people shelter is important to ensure that they can comply with the city’s shelter-in-place order.

“If we can’t support people’s ability to shelter in place on the streets, if resources aren’t provided near them. They will breach the shelter in place,” said Howe.

According to Howe, two-person tents are the best option for individuals who can’t get shelter in doors, because they allow people to self-isolate to an extent, get them out of the rain, and provide enough space for them and their belongings. Howe added that because San Francisco is experiencing a public health crisis, the city should allow homeless people to remain in place in tents, and not be told to “move along.”

“We are in the middle of a public health crisis, maybe we should do something different. Continuing these policies puts everyone at risk,” said Lowe.

The Homeless Youth Alliance is working with Sup. Dean Preston’s office to locate possible sites for homeless people to shelter in place. Lowe said that a parking lot at 730 Stanyan. and Golden Gate Park are good candidates.

The Homeless Youth Alliance’s campaigns for tent donations and for sanctioned sites where unhoused people can live in tents legally are intended to provide immediate shelter to those who have no option to go indoors. The Homeless Youth Alliance supports the measure proposed by supervisorsthat would allow the city to acquire even more hotel rooms than the original goal of 4,250 rooms and would seek to acquire a enough rooms from a pool of 30,000 existing vacant hotel rooms to house homeless San Franciscans, sick or no.

“I think people want housing, when people are living in tents, that’s demonstrative of people wanting housing, they want safety and privacy…We would prefer everyone be prioritized to get their own hotel room,” said Lowe.

Lowe told me that if enough hotel rooms become available to house all homeless San Franciscans, she would end the tent distribution campaign.

But until that happens, the Homeless Youth Alliance will continue to accept donated tents and distribute them to homeless people.

If you want to donate a two-person tent to the Homeless Youth Alliance, you can order a tent online and either mail it or drop it off at 607A Haight St.